Take a Black Pilgrimage with the Rocket Man

The life and influence of Jack Parsons

How about this for a heady mix when contemplating a storyline?

  • A genius who designs some of the first rockets and paves the way for travel to the moon
  • An obsession with the occult, sex magick and the seeking out of a ‘Scarlet Woman.’
  • Connections with Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology movement.
  • Tutelage and correspondence with Aleister Crowley, judged by some to be the most evil man who ever lived.
  • Completion of several occultist books, including a controversial 4th part to Crowley’s ‘Book of the Law’ called ‘The book of Babalon.’
  • Stormy romances with several women, each a character in their own right.
  • Death in an explosion while carrying out one of his homespun experiments.

It could be the plot for a book or film, and indeed it became both. But this is the true story of the Rocket Man known as Jack (Marvel) Parsons. It is also the inspiration behind the title of my latest collection of stories, ‘Wandering in the Witchwood.’

So, who was this Jack Parsons? Here’s a brief history based on the extensive Wikipedia article that you can read in detail here.

Jack Parsons was born on October 2, 1914. He was an American rocket engineer, chemist, and Thelemite occultist. Parsons was one of the principal founders of both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Aerojet Engineering Corporation. He invented the first rocket engine to use a castable, composite rocket propellant and pioneered the advancement of both liquid-fuel and solid-fuel rockets.

That’s an impressive cv, so it’s a wonder few people have ever heard of him. I’m going to skip ahead to his immersion in the world of the occult – which is the part that interests me. Parsons converted to Thelema in 1939 – that’s just after the second world war ended. Thelema was the new religious movement founded by the English occultist Aleister Crowley. His famous retreat was the Abbey of Thelema in Cefalù, Sicily, and is the subject of much speculation and intrigue. It even inspired a song by one of my favourite artists – Ian Gillan (of Deep Purple fame.)

In 1941, alongside his first wife Helen Northrup, Parsons joined the Agape Lodge, the Californian branch of the Thelemite Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) This led to his expulsion from JPL and Aerojet in 1944 due to the Lodge’s infamous reputation, along with his hazardous workplace conduct.

In 1945 Parsons separated from Helen after having an affair with her sister Sara. Curiously, Sara eventually became enamoured with Science fiction writer and U.S. Navy officer L. Ron Hubbard, who moved into the Parson’s home. Before this, he and Parsons became close friends. Parsons wrote to Crowley that although Hubbard had “no formal training in Magick he has an extraordinary amount of experience and understanding in the field. From some of his experiences I deduce he is direct touch with some higher intelligence, possibly his Guardian Angel. … He is the most Thelemic person I have ever met and is in complete accord with our own principles.

Parsons and Sara were in an open relationship encouraged by the O.T.O.’s polyandrous sexual ethics, and she became enamoured with Hubbard; Parsons, despite attempting to repress his passions, became intensely jealous. Motivated to find a new partner through occult means, Parsons began to devote his energies to conducting black magic, causing concern among fellow O.T.O. members who believed that it was invoking troublesome spirits into the Parsonage; Jane Wolfe wrote to Crowley that “our own Jack is enamoured with Witchcraft, the houmfort, voodoo. From the start he always wanted to evoke something—no matter what, I am inclined to think, as long as he got a result.” He told the residents that he was imbuing statues in the house with a magical energy in order to sell them to fellow occultists. Parsons reported paranormal events in the house resulting from the rituals; including poltergeist activity, sightings of orbs and ghostly apparitions, alchemical (sylphic) effect on the weather, and disembodied voices. Parsons may have been particularly susceptible to these interpretations and attributed the voices to a prank by Hubbard and Sara. One ritual allegedly brought screaming banshees to the windows of the Parsonage, an incident that disturbed Forman for the rest of his life.

Phew! Surely someone would make a film of the man’s life based on this information alone. Well – they not only did this, Mark Heyman created a whole series called ‘Strange Angel’ based on George Pandle’s book of the same name. You can view it on CBS’ on demand service (which I can’t get in the UK – dammit.) Anyway, here’s the trailer on ‘Rotten Tomatoes’

Back to the story:

When Sara Northrup left Parsons for L. Ron Hubbard, he conducted the Babalon Working, a series of rituals designed to invoke the Thelemic goddess Babalon to Earth. He and his associates carried out a final ritual in the Mojave Desert in late February 1946, during which Parsons abruptly decided that his undertaking was complete.

Here’s where another colourful character appears in the story. On returning to the Parsonage he discovered that Marjorie Cameron—an unemployed illustrator and former Navy WAVE—had come to visit. Believing her to be the ‘elemental’ woman and manifestation of Babalon that he had invoked, in early March Parsons began performing sex magic rituals with Cameron, who acted as his “Scarlet Woman”, while Hubbard continued to participate as the amanuensis (yes – that’s right. Hubbard was still on the scene!) Unlike the rest of the household, Cameron knew nothing at first of Parsons’ magical intentions: “I didn’t know anything about the O.T.O., I didn’t know that they had invoked me, I didn’t know anything, but the whole house knew it. Everybody was watching to see what was going on.”] Despite this ignorance and her scepticism about Parsons’ magic, Cameron reported her sighting of a UFO to Parsons, who secretly recorded the sighting as a materialization of Babalon.

When Cameron departed for a trip to New York, Parsons retreated to the desert, where he believed that a preternatural entity psychographically provided him with Liber 49, which represented a fourth part of Crowley’s The Book of the Law, the primary sacred text of Thelema, as well as part of a new sacred text he called the Book of Babalon.

Crowley apparently took offence to this and was bewildered by the endeavor, he explained that he was “fairly frantic when I contemplated the idiocy of these louts!” Well, when you think you’ve completed a masterwork, then some upstart comes along and effectively says it’s incomplete, you might be a little miffed.

Marjorie Cameron deserves a whole article on herself as she had a life beyond Parsons as an actress and artist, appearing in Kenneth Anger’s film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and producing some incredible pieces of art, some of which you can view on my Pinterest board here

You can read more about Marjorie Cameron here.

Parsons and Hubbard continued the Babalon procedure with Marjorie Cameron, whom Parsons married in 1946. After Hubbard and Sara defrauded him of his life savings (no one comes out of this story looking virtuous – believe me,) Parsons resigned from the O.T.O. and went through various jobs while acting as a consultant for the Israeli rocket program. Amid the climate of McCarthyism, he was accused of espionage and left unable to work in rocketry.

In 1952 Parsons died at the age of 37 in a home laboratory explosion that attracted national media attention; the police ruled it an accident, but many associates suspected suicide or murder.

I told you it was an interesting story. So where does this connect with the title of my book? Well it all comes down to my appreciation of poetry and art. I’d had a hard time coming up with a suitable title to this collection. I had deliberately written one novella and three short stories featuring women as the main characters. It’s part of an authorial journey where I express what I think I understand and reach out into those areas where I need to discover new truths. I wanted to avoid clichéd suggestions like ‘femme fatale’ yet somehow evoke something that spoke of strength, femininity and wilfulness. So, when I saw the following passage in Parson’s Book of Babalon, I had a moment of serendipity:

‘Let her be dedicated, consecrated, blood to blood, heart to heart, mind to mind, single in will, none without the circle, all to me. And she shall wander in the Witchwood under the Night of Pan, and know the mysteries of the Goat and the Serpent, and of the children that are hidden away.’

It was quite a coincidence that one of the stories in the collection, ‘Hircine’ featured a goat-like god and a woman’s desire to connect with him. But the phrase ‘Wandering in the Witchwood’ seemed to sum up all that these stories were aimed at.

I have to say that there is much in the life stories of Parsons and Crowley that I do not condone – there is more than an undercurrent of misogyny, despite their attempts at portraying women as god-like and seekers of ‘Love under will.’ There are other features of their lives that speak of narcissism, self-indulgence and delusion. Despite this, I think there is much to appreciate and lift from the lives of these flawed geniuses.

Books about Parsons and Cameron you may be interested in are ‘Strange Angel’ and ‘Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron.’

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